'Tis the most excellent foppery of this English football circus: their deep, abiding principle that everything will be okay once things are different to the last time.
It is the only criteria the FA use to appoint the England manager: just be different to the last guy. Fabio Capello was picked because he wouldn't use players' nicknames like Steve 'Macca' McClaren had; Roy Hodgson was the amiable, friendly Yes man that the raging, permanently displeased Cappello was not; Sam Allardyce was supposed to give England the kind of identity that Hodgson couldn't in the curdled hysteria against Iceland; Gareth Southgate was given the job largely because he looked unlikely to insult Prince Harry and Gary Neville while drinking wine from a pint glass.
This philosophy has spread to the English media of late, which has committed itself to a relative level of introspection ahead of this tournament. Now, rather than hyping their boys up, they have been very careful to manage expectation. It has never felt particularly authentic to this column, but large swathes of Her Majesty's Press evidently felt their solemn duty was not to get too carried away.
Some crossed the picket line, with Danny Murphy reckoning that "we'll do a lot better than some are saying". Nonetheless, Gary Lineker stuck to the script with his opening on the Beeb.
"Expectations are low and nobody is losing the run of themselves " smiled Lineker, before making a gag to cut to a genuinely entertaining VT of how the media might react were England to win the World Cup. They can't help themselves.
— BBC Sport (@BBCSport) June 17, 2018
This video was posted online yesterday, however, and the replies are instructive. A selection:
This is why we're never winning the world cup again.
Embarrassing Tabloid TV. Do you actually think this helps the team?
The BBC have just cursed our chances.
And you wonder why theres too much pressure on previous England teams. You absolute mugs.
This is a very delicate kind of pessimism, with reactions like these suggesting that any wanton messages of hope could set the whole country off in an eruption of wild, inchoate triumphalism that would have Vera Lynn waving at Germany while daubing the Cliffs of Dover with graffiti screaming '2 WORLD WARS AND 2 WORLD CUPS'.
Nonetheless, ahead of the game, the Beeb more or less kept a lid on it. Instead, Gareth Southgate was hoisted high as a kind of Messi of The Corporate Away Days. "He's played a blinder so far", said Lampard as they spoke of the spirit he has fostered in the camp. The BBC panel, by the way, was essentially the BT Sport team with one exception: alongside Lineker, Lampard and Rio Ferdinand was Alan Shearer, instead of Steven Gerrard. He's at home training Rangers, so someone has finally realised that with Gerrard and Lampard, one should stay while the other goes.
Southgate was championed for being faithful to the England Principle of just making it different to the last time. Rio Ferdinand praised Southgate's welcoming of the media into the camp, recalling that in his day, it was "us versus the press". 'Even at the last Euros, Joe Hart was warned not to publicly identify the winner of a darts competition among the squad. This time around, Southgate had the squad and the media playing darts together.
That singular condition of the England team - their complete inability to spend time together without being either bored or too entertained - was explored pre-game too. In a video segment with past England managers, Roy Hodgson called this a problem of "incarceration". Fabio Capello quite gloriously disabused viewers of this notion, calling it a "loser's excuse".
Nonetheless, Gareth had overcome this trouble per the Beeb, with Ferdinand praising his work as a "social worker". The impossible job indeed.
But with England going a goal up early in the game, the optimism wasn't long running loose. "England are playing probably the best football the competition has seen" thundered Her Majesty's Keown on co-commentary. Corrective action was taken by the referee with the award of a penalty before half-time, with the Beeb surprisingly sanguine at the break. Rio Ferdinand said it was "criminal" for a centre-half to be caught facing his own goal in that position, although stopped short of criticising Southgate for playing Kyle Walker out of position.
Alan Shearer admitted that it was probably a penalty, but ramped himself into a frenzy over VAR's failure to award Harry Kane a penalty later in the half.
As the game dwindled to a close, Harry Kane was left unmarked by the strikingly useless Tunisia defence to steer England to a late, late win. "Harry the Hero" exulted Lineker in the studio afterward, hailing an "exceptional" performance. He couldn't help but be excited, with Shearer stepping in to warn him not to get too carried away.
Literally within a minute of Shearer's stern intrusion of sense, both men were discussing Harry Kane's Golden Boot prospects.
English football is beset by an odd fatalism about their failure to allow the fatalism take hold. The BBC couldn't but get carried away with themselves, and the enthusiasm of ITV (Ian Wright!) will soon be loosed upon the world.
We've seen all of this before, and there's the rub: given how England struggled to break down unfathomably useless opponents tonight, this endgame will probably be very familiar to us.
England might make it different to the last time, but everything will probably turn out to be similar to the time before that.
- Rio Ferdinand is a great pundit, but should be on RTE if he continues to call Panama "no great shakes".
- The plague of flies in Volgograd led to some predictable puns. Here are the best, in descending order: "England fans are less worried about Russian thugs than they are Russian bugs" - Dan Roan, BBC; "FIFA might have to send in a SWAT team" - Lineker, BBC; "It might be a fly in the ointment for England" - Brady, RTE; "There'll be no flies on England" - Whelan, RTE.
- On that topic, Ferdinand praising England's pressing by saying "they are...swarming all over them like....bees" was a missed opportunity.
- George Hamilton, meanwhile, went renegade, pun-wise. "For a player that's active in Dijon, you could say that did not cut the mustard".
- George Hamilton and Ronnie Whelan were wearing the same shirt.
- Cesc Fabregas has been quite good on BBC. He was forthright in his opinion that the English media put too much pressure on their players today, and is doing well to manage the indignity of being landed between Phil Neville and Danny Murphy.
- Danny Murphy describing Kevin De Bruyne as the "greatest unlocker of a defence in the history of the game" is a bit over the top.
- Arguably the worst part of the World Cup so far have been the long, dreary discussions given to VAR by folk who evidently want it to fail. This will command its own column very soon.
- One of the most annoying elements of RTE's coverage is their eagerness to cut back to studio at full-time. It has cost us some lovely footage of Javier Hernandez weeping after the Germany win, for example.
Tweets of the Day
— Erika Andiola (@ErikaAndiola) June 17, 2018
— Jack Lang (@jacklang) June 18, 2018
German TV coverage on in our Moscow hotel... pitchside presenter in Volgograd has gone full bee-keeper. pic.twitter.com/GduVYZ0XPk
— Richard Conway (@richard_conway) June 18, 2018
Hoping for an early outing for the great Irish tradition of flicking over to the BBC when England are losing #bbcworldcup
— Dodge (@seidodge) June 18, 2018